CJN DEBATE: Halachah demands that we believe

Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner

Judaism preaches the existence of God with its every text, idea and law. To borrow a phrase from philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the existence of God is one of the “irreducible and stubborn facts” of Judaism, a necessary first principle. A code of conduct that adopts Jewish practices, but is devoid of God can be moral and good, but it is not Judaism.

History proclaims that the existence of God has always been a part of Judaism. The traditional Torah text begins with Divine creation of the universe. Even schools of biblical criticism that propose human authorship of the Bible concede that the earliest texts presented a God-centred view of human history, with God moving events along. The greatest biblical figures, from Abraham to Moses to Hannah, sought and taught closeness to God. 

The philosophy of Judaism is God-centred. The word mitzvah means not “good deed” but “commandment,” and Judaism’s sense of religious duty presupposes the existence of a Commander. The Bible’s promises of reward and punishment and its narratives of redemption preach the presence of a Judge. The biblical principles of morality and social justice are perpetually punctuated with “I am God,” declaring that these are the instructions of a deity.

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Jewish law demands not only deed, but also belief, and especially the acceptance of the existence of God. The Bible commands the Jew to recite, “Listen, Israel: the Lord is our Master, God is One” and explicitly prohibits idolatry. The festivals of the Bible celebrate a history of Divine action on behalf of the Jewish People. The biblical text is replete with instructions to bring offerings to God. It is clear that belief in God is an essential part of these laws.

But despite history, philosophy and law, despite this irreducible and stubborn fact of Judaism, I believe the answer to the question “Does Judaism require belief in God?” is “Yes, but not yet.” A Jew does not so much find God as seek God.

Questioning whether God is present, interested and benevolent is part of Judaism. The Jews who fled Egypt challenged, “Is God in our midst, or not?” (Exodus 17). And yet, God gave them the Torah at Sinai. Feeling bereft of Divine support, King David asked, “God, have You not abandoned us?” (Psalms 44:10 and 60:12) And yet, Samuel I 18 declares, “And David was insightful in all of his ways – and God was with him.” The sages who canonized Jewish Scripture chose to include Jonah, Job and Ecclesiastes, even though passages in each book question the existence and nature of God.

In the 12th century, Rabbi Moses Maimonides explained that the classic Divine declaration, “I am the Lord your Master, who took you out of Egypt,” (Exodus 20:2) is a commandment. Maimonides wrote that a Jew must “know that there is a first entity, which brought into existence all that exists.” (Book of Mitzvot, Commandment 1) 

However, as Rabbi Saadia Gaon wrote in the 10th century, “One cannot know without a cause to know, and that cause is search and analysis.” Or as 19th-century commentator Rabbi Meir Leibush wrote, we are expected “to work toward knowing this with clear knowledge.” (Malbim, Exodus 20:2) The bias is toward looking for God, rather than attempting to disprove God, but the questions are a legitimate part of Judaism. 

The potent enemy of that search is our era’s post-Enlightenment insistence on premature conclusions. The European Enlightenment birthed great children, including examination of society’s assumptions and a drive for self-determination.

These messages licensed us to explain the world and empowered us to change it decisively. But as powerfully positive as that message can be, it comes with a pernicious side effect: the perception that incomprehension and uncertainty are signs of weakness or fear. This leads us to demand decisions immediately, with insufficient evidence and examination, naming ourselves “atheists” or “believers” and closing the book instead of accepting the challenge of learning.

Danish priest Soren Kierkegaard captured the problem in the preface to his 19th-century work Fear and Trembling. He wrote regarding skepticism, “What those ancient Greeks (who also had some understanding of philosophy) regarded as a task for a whole lifetime, seeing that dexterity in doubting is not acquired in a few days or weeks… this is where everybody begins in our time.” And regarding faith, “In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days or weeks.” We are profligate with our certainty, in both directions.

With its every fibre, Judaism declares the existence of God. However, Judaism is comfortable with the Jew’s “not yet.” I believe it does not expect the Jew to know as much as to attempt to know. 

Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner is dean of Yeshiva University Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov (www.torontotorah.com).